Growing Ideas: Farmers get a stellar view of their soil

How satellite data shapes smarter farming

Dutch start-up VanderSat uses satellite technology to measure the amount of moisture in soil. They provide farmers, insurance agencies and NGOs with data that is sixty thousand times more accurate than any data provided by NASA.

At just three years old, tech start-up VanderSat already boasts large clients from around the world. “Ours is a special field of expertise that is relatively young,” explains CEO Menno van der Marel. “There are only about a hundred experts worldwide and we employ eighteen of them.”

“The information we deliver is unique,” he continues. “As you know, the world’s population is growing and we have to be more efficient with our food and water. There are a lot of parties working to achieve that and the information we provide is highly relevant to them.”

Van der Marel explains to us how his company’s satellite data can affect the future of farming and food security.

What does VanderSat do?

We measure the moisture in the soil, the temperature and the moisture in vegetation across the world. That in itself is not unique, but we can measure to a resolution of 100 x 100 meters instead of roughly 25 x 25 kilometers.

The accuracy of our data is so much higher because we process rough satellite data ourselves. Thanks to microwaves we can see through the clouds and measure the moisture in the upper five centimeters of the soil. A drone or land-based device is more accurate, but also much more expensive. Our data is accurate enough for many large parties and affordable because of scale.

Besides current data, we can also provide old data from our archives which go back roughly forty years, the last fifteen to twenty of which are the most accurate. Dutch water boards, for example, use our data to monitor the effectiveness of their policies.

What problem does VanderSat solve?

The data can be used for a wide range of applications, for example in agriculture. Drought is the main reason for crop failures. But if crops are irrigated too soon, they won’t grow properly either. We can indicate the right time. Some diseases and fungi can occur in crops at specific moisture and temperature levels. We can measure both and predict when crops should be sprayed. That targeted information benefits the environment and the farmer.

In Kazakhstan, a country that suffers from frequent droughts, we are working with an insurance company. Kazakh farmers are now able to take out insurance against crop failures, which wasn’t possible before because drought was hard to predict and it was too expensive to send someone out to the field. The insurance company decides whether to pay compensation based on our data.

The Red Cross is another customer. We are investigating whether we can predict floods a couple of days in advance. They can then make funds available to take precautionary measures such as moving cattle to higher ground. Prevention is cheaper than solving problems after the disaster has struck.

”Drought is the main reason for crop failures”

- Menno van der Marel, VanderSat

What’s the biggest challenge?

We want to have a positive impact. The Netherlands has an area of 4.3 million hectares and we have already made a positive difference on 100 million hectares. Our aim is to expand that to 1 billion hectares. Making a difference means working with other parties, adapting quickly to get the best result. That calls for openness from both sides and there has to be trust going forward. If there’s a click with a particular party, we will try to open up the entire segment.

This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of food and agriculture and offer a platform to innovative companies in these sectors.